Budding writers will ask, “Is my idea original? Do you think it could sell?” And that’s when I ask, “Will this be your first script?” If the answer is “yes,” then I’ll tell them, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about coming up with an original, saleable idea just yet.” Then I’ll tell them, “Your chances are pretty high that whatever you write at this stage in your career won’t be worthy of showing to anybody in Hollywood. Right now your goal is (or should be) to write a structurally sound and coherent screenplay.” Hey, it’s tough enough just getting that screenplay written – one that makes any sense whatsoever – so why make it even more difficult by racking your brain, trying to come up with some highly original, slam-bang idea? (I always find it odd how some novice writers tend to pick the most complex, “original” storylines for their first venture into screenwriting.) So for now, leave that “ultra hot idea” on the backburner and choose something simple and uncomplicated for that first script.
Now you’re asking: “Like what?” I suggest you take an event from your life. Perhaps a story all about the first girl (or guy) you fell in love with, or perhaps your first crazy week of high school or college, or the first days at some mind-numbingly boring (or intoxicatingly exciting!) job you once had. Whatever. Point is, write about something you have first-hand knowledge about; something where the story is literally at your fingertips. The rest – structure, character arc, realistic/plausible dialogue, etc. – you’ll have to eventually figure out; but believe me, all that stuff is a heck of a lot less difficult to navigate if you know your story inside and out.
Always remember that this early phase in your career is all about learning. It’s about trial and error. It’s about discovering what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t worry if your writing stinks at first. Your job now is to find out why it stinks and move forward. Also remember that you’ll probably have to write a few scripts before you really get a handle on what this screenwriting thing is all about. You might need to write a dozen scripts. There’s a very good chance you’ll never get a handle on it. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
Also, when you write your first script, you might consider writing a short, something in the 40-page range. Your first act will be roughly five pages, your second act will be roughly thirty pages, and your third act will be roughly five pages. Yup, a short is very doable, very manageable – and you’ll have the satisfaction of having a completed script in about one-third the time!
So keep it simple, Screenwriter. For that first or second screenplay, aim for a coherent, readable script with a relatively simple storyline and save the intricate political thriller for another day.
Don’t worry, you can thank me later.